So, you’re probably like the token black girl at your work, right?
Aside: **( If you are new to the term “token” or “tokenism” as used in regard to racial equity, I would describe tokenism as covert racism, and as the practice of posturing inclusive efforts, particularly through the hiring of persons (usually a small number) from underrepresented groups into the workplace in order to appear equitable without actually changing the workplaces power dynamics or institutional framework. Persons from underrepresented groups are usually then, nothing more than “racialized props.”)**
Someone asked me this recently and I realized that I didn’t know what to say, because I knew that:
As a Black woman, I find the situation precarious and weighty because I take pride in whom I am and yet, I also want to be able to gain meaningful work without relying on my skin color to gain access to legitimate and meaningful employment opportunities. I am accessorized because of my “diversity,” but I am also barred from opportunities because I am often required to be black in skin color but not “black” in opinion. I have found that when my voice challenges or questions frameworks which rely on white power, I am often ignored, blocked or derailed from achieving my goal.
This journey can be particularly confusing in White, Mennonite spaces because too often these spaces are primed as “allied” spaces. Consider the following:
Small striped green, blue and orange picket signs peek behind white picket fences, and suddenly the graying town is made magnificent: No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor. It is easy to forget that this is suburbia, that this place too has been made possible by gentrification and that these signs rest nestled in yards free of debris.
A middle-aged, thin white man walks outside dressed for church, clothed in a traditional over-sized, African print top that smacks of: ‘I was once a Missionary” and faded blue jeans. He adjusts his sign. He shops at Ten Thousand Villages. He knows that with the $80 dollars he used for a new giraffe statue, he has participated in building a well in Kenya. He dusts his hands and unconsciously runs them over his pants. He walks to his car, a station wagon, and moves the cloth grocery bags that were left haphazardly on the passenger seat and moves them to the back. He turns on the car and then gets out of the car to open the door for his wife.
The woman is wearing a plain, large, over-sized top and bangles, a Pashmina wrapped around her shoulders and a safety pin firmly clamped onto it. Her graying blonde hair has been cut short emphasizing her dainty cheekbones and she carries a well-worn Bible and a small cloth purse which contains: Burts Bees Chapstick; Organic Tissues; Udderly Smooth hand cream and books to hand out to her friends on loan: The Trouble I’ve Seen by Drew G.I Hart; Between the World and Me by Ta Naheesi Coates and The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone. She has considered giving these books as gifts to her friends, but has not decided whether or not she can afford to do this. Not that she couldn’t financially afford to do this, but the books give her library a sort of pleasing aesthetic look with their bright colors. And besides, she just likes them. She feels a small twinge when she thinks this, suppressing inside of her the voice that reminds her that she currently has them displayed on her coffee table beside a series of three medium sized elephant statues and the newest version of ‘The Mennonite’.
The man closes the door, and returns to the driver’s seat. He turns on a local Christian Radio Station and they begin their short commute to the local church.
“It will soon be warm enough that we can bike to Church,” his wife comments. She smiles at the thought. “I think my Birkenstocks will still survive another season yet,” she titters and he joins her, remembering the sorry state of her sandals.
“I keep telling you that you need to upgrade to Chaco’s. In fact, I think I saw a pair in your size at the Goodwill the other day.” the man chortles. “Size 7, yes?”
His wife smiles and looks out the window. In their neighborhood, every single house has a “no matter where you are from” sign in their yard. The streets are wide and the sidewalks are free from debris and she grips the mug that she got from her daughter: “Good Vibes Only” it reads in bright sparkly gold. At first, she hadn’t been too sure of it. She preferred her artisan made mugs from the local potter, but she hadn’t wanted to put this one in the Goodwill bin until after a few uses. She takes a sip of her Green Tea and sighs.
After a moment, the husband asks, “Are you volunteering at the shelter tonight?”
“Not tonight, I was there last week, remember? I keep remembering this woman that I met. There was this woman there. Beautiful. Just beautiful with the most gorgeous hair, but I don’t believe it was real…” Her voice trails off, and she stares out the window. They have finally reached the Church, and she recognizes the woman walking towards the steps as the woman from the shelter.
Her husband drops her off at the door as is his custom, and she hurries to gather her bags. “I thought I recognized you,” she says, hurrying up the steps to the stranger.
The stranger turns, her face contorted in confusion. It was obvious then that this woman was a different woman. Not the same woman from the shelter.
“I’m so sorry…you look just like someone else…my mistake, it is so nice to have you here today, I don’t believe we’ve met,” she prattles. The stranger smiles, a knowing smile. The stranger has smiled this smile before, and it is a tired smile, worn out by well-meaning white people. The woman walks faster in order to keep up with the stranger. The stranger pauses, the smile still wide on her face and waits for the woman.
The woman’s voice is strong and curious, “Girl, you are so beautiful and you have such beautiful hair,” she continues. She can’t help herself, the words jump out of her mouth: “is it real?” She reaches out then, with her hand, curious. Her small, dainty white fingers wriggling with anticipation.
The woman is not quite sure why the word, “girl” slipped out of her mouth, but it did and that small twinge rises up inside of her again. She adjusts her bag and leans towards the stranger, her hands almost touching the thick beautiful curls.
It is perhaps inexplicable that the exact time she asks this, her bag rips, sending her books thumping onto the floor. She trips over Coates, Hart and Cone as she leans forward to touch, and the stranger steps back. The greeters open the door for them and scramble with the books on the ground. The stranger disappears. A man asks the woman if she is okay. No one has noticed that the stranger has exited the doors, and fled back into the world.
“Her hair. It was so beautiful,” the woman explains, bewildered. “I just wanted to be sure it was real.”
Later, when the stranger is back at home, she will write a tiny letter entitled: “On the Subject of White Mennonite Women that carry Coates but will still grab a Black Woman’s Hair.” No one will read it.
*Questions to consider – was this a safe space? Whom did it protect? What did it protect? * While, you can argue that the correct answer is “white people” for the second and third question, I want you to consider this answer again. Rely on your critical eye. While this story is, arguably, inconsequential – it was a microaggression made by a well-intentioned white woman – I think that this story is critical towards unpacking the Mennonite Churches precarious relationship with racism. If the Mennonite Church endeavors to create authentic and sustainable relationships with POC then we must allow room to hear and to validate POC experiences. POC are not infallible voices; however, when we rely on a framework which relies upon singular white voices we, perhaps unintentionally, fundamentally devalue POC experiences and, perhaps even more dangerously, POC theological understandings. As a Church (I am using this in the broad sense), we have too often participated in segregation by way of exclusion. This not only is disturbing for its spiritual implications but it is also disturbing because it provides a singular understanding of Jesus as a particular kind of “white” savior.*
As I reach out to Jesus, I am continually convicted that not only was Jesus a holistic savior, but that all of our identities find redemption in the cross. I have often heard this salvation gospel turned into this idea of “colorblindness.” However, I am convinced that in Jesus my identity as a Black woman does not become irrelevant, instead it no longer becomes a source of disempowerment and disvaluation because Jesus is the ultimate breaker of chains.
As I continue my own journey into wholeness – particularly by means of racial justice and activism, I have found that:
And, while I hope that the brief vignette above does not come across as melodramatic or even sensationalized, I do think that we too often privilege the Mennonite ally narrative without any real challenges.
It is easy to display signs in “safe” neighborhoods.
It is easy to shop at Ten Thousand Villages if you have a car and the financial stability to buy ethically sourced clothing.
It is easy to be one of those people that can quote Ta-Naheesi Coates without ever really engaging others within multicultural contexts.
It is easy to be an ally if all of your friends are white. (According to the Washington Post , 75% of White Americans do not have any non-white friends).
A friend sent me the following meme the other day that said:
“Speak with the confidence of a white man at an academic talk about to ask a “question” that’s really just a 5-minute assertion of his knowledge.”
This warranted a good laugh. But, I also couldn’t help but think how indicative this meme was of tokenization in the contemporary economic and religious world, particularly in regard to businesses, and religious institutions. As I have been looking to move towards working for and with nonprofit organizations, I couldn’t help but find that while I was mentally and emotionally preparing myself for the application process, I was also doing something more: I was preparing myself for tokenism and the mental and physical effects of being a lone Person of Color (POC) in a Predominately White Institution (PWI). Let me be clear. Tokenism for POC happens in both non-profit and for-profit businesses; however, it has been my experience that particularly in religious nonprofits, something extra happens.
For example, I have experienced that White Mennonite Churches tend to be particularly sensitive (ie: cue the white tears/white guilt/white complacency) when confronted with the reality that their inherent power structures tend to be ones that simultaneously reinforce white power and a damaging POC narrative.
Not only have I experienced that these places often deny that such inherent frameworks are in place, but they often are quick to point out – albeit indirectly more often than directly- that because they are Christian organizations and work for minority communities that this absolves them from being or participating in racist frameworks.
I would assert that this belief stems from the way in which white people assume that racism relies on a binary oppositional model: bad vs. good. “Bad” white people are in the KKK, attend Unite the Right rallies and Nazi propaganda parties. “Good” white people cannot be or participate in racist frameworks. This understanding can also be tweaked for Mennonite Communities. “Bad” white people are Trump Lovers. “Bad” white people advocate for the NRA. “Bad” white people live in AmeriKKKa and don’t condemn the Charlottesville attack. On the flipside, “good” white people share their Church with minorities and later, after Sunday School is over and that one teacher is complaining about all the “problems” the brown boy had, nobody says anything. “Good” white people share their church space for community days with the “poor.” “Good” white people send their white children to Appalachia or New Orleans for short term mission trips. “Good” white people have that ‘no matter where you are from’ sign proudly displayed but not a Black Lives Matter.
As a POC, I recognize many Predominately White Mennonite Churches (PWMC) are not equipped to support their POC members because PWMC’s often, albeit unconsciously, perpetuate and participate in racism which can re-traumatize and/or re-victimize and/or tokenize POC in the congregation. I have learned to call this state of being as experiencing “ten thousand cuts.”
As a POC, you quickly begin to let go of the microaggressions.
And, I also recognize the subtle microaggressions. The “girl” or “ain’t” slipped into a sentence from a proudly, Liberal, Mennonite Ally when talking to me. The white hand grab whenever I do something new and exciting to my hair.
As I began to think through my own experiences and to research other POC experiences, I came across this wonderful list on Medium.com created by Helen Kim Ho, an Attorney, Activist and Diversity life coach, entitled “8 Ways People of Color are Tokenized in Nonprofits,” as well as the article in The Mennonite entitled, “Can Mennonite Voluntary Service be Saved?” by my pastor friend, Hillary Watson.
There remains a disturbing and distressing trend within White Communities, (and, because I am most familiar with the Mennonite Community, I will primarily focus there) that results in the elevation of POC to primarily serve in roles which relates to diversity or race relations.
As I think about my own interactions and experiences within the Mennonite Community, I thought it may be helpful to combine and alter Ho’s list in such a way that reflects tokenization in progressive Mennonite communities because I believe it is critical to be aware of and to unpack and dismantle the ways in which our own religious communities perpetuate and participate in racism and racist practices. After all, well-meaning white Mennonites still have the propensity to be racist.
For example – a few years ago, a Sunday School class was utilizing the popularized “Line Game” in order to illustrate racial injustice and inequities and, unbeknownst to me, I had opted to attend this class. Needless to say, I was the only black person and, at that time, I was the only black person that attended this Church.
The Sunday School class consisted of about ten, middle aged white people. And, the questions included things like the following: “Take one step back if you’ve ever been asked to answer the question with the opinion of your race of ethnicity….take one step back if you’ve ever been told that you should do something because of your race or ethnicity…take one step back if you can buy a band aid in your skin color or if “nude” is defaulted to your skin tone”
At the end of the class, the teacher pulled me aside to say that she was hoping they would have a POC play because it will allow for a better visualization of racial inequities…
While this “game” has been lauded in white circles for its ability to visually illustrate inequities it also deeply disturbs me because it:
And, this “game” is one in which firmly relies on minority participation in order to illustrate what? This “game” is often lauded as a resource for High School Guidance lessons. What better a place to play such a “game” then with angst-ridden teens? It is not that I don’t believe that teenagers and adults cannot have mature discussions about racism and inequities, but I believe that if these conversations rely on these “games” in order to begin the discussion, then I have very real concerns about the legitimacy of the anti-racism initiative.
I believe that the questions are powerful enough that white persons can still consider new ways of understanding racism by playing this without the “help” of minority participants.
*(Aside – if you haven’t seen this “game” click here).*
As, I began to unpack and dismantle my own experiences I realized that my experience as a Black woman in a PWMC, were comparable to Ho’s tokenization list for POC in nonprofit organizations.
So, the following will have Ho’s statement in bold, as well as parts of her reasoning below. Below Ho’s statements, I will have my statement relating tokenism to the Mennonite Community in blue on the first 4. You can also access Ho’s full article above and again here.
“That’s tokenism 101. You’ll typically see this in the hiring of a POC to be the ‘face’ of an organization that is trying to become more diverse, while one or more White staff (or long standing Board Chair) maintain actual authority…as soon as these POC try to exercise their leadership roles, those in power will work to undermine, block and derail them. For well-meaning White colleagues, if you’re engaging in this behavior – no matter what excuse you make for it – you are tokenizing POC.”
In the Western Mennonite, (and arguably in the Western, Evangelical or Protestant Christian Church), world, I have experienced this tokenism morph into opportunities for POC to take leadership positions while the main framework remains predominately white. For implications, examine the power structure of your own Church and your Church’s Leadership and Governing Bodies. If you are Mennonite, examine the power structures of MCUSA, ACC and Lancaster Conference. The MCUSA Executive Board and Executive Committee are predominately white. Now, while there are representatives of the African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic and Indigenous Mennonite Churches, the framework remains entrenched in White Power.
To be clear, I believe that white people can and must be allies for POC, and I believe that White Power must be separated into tiers, after all – not all persons which participate in white power frameworks are racists; however, I wonder if the Executive board also relies on tokenism? I wonder if the number of representatives (one per minority group) inherently relies on tokenism? I wonder what it means if we use tokenism at the very top of our leadership what this models for leadership groups within individual churches and what the repercussions and realities are for POC within the Church.
“This type of tokenizing not only perpetuates economic inequality against POC, but strips POC of ownership over our own stories…While not every storyteller can be compensated (we are talking about the nonprofit industry, after all), recruiting POC to support an organization that doesn’t value POC enough to hire or pay them is the ultimate in tokenizing. And, when White communications staff are the architects and gatekeepers of what stories are best to sell or move people around a POC cause, they will surely fail to understand key motivations, perspectives and influences because they are filtering through their own privileged lenses.”
Did you flinch when you read this? I did. And, it flooded me with memories. How many times have Mennonite Churches held a “racism Sunday School Class,” and fail to compensate the teacher? How many time do Mennonite Churches make the decision to have the Sunday School Class on racism without a POC on the committee? And, how many times Mennonite Churches expect that the POC in the Church will lead that class, regardless of whether or not they believed that the Church was ready for a racism class?
“If you consistently pick Whites for coveted consultancies, expert projects or senior-staff positions except when the work specifically relates to diversity or race relations, that tells a story about your organization and the locus of power (#nonprofitssowhite). How does this happen? No matter how progressive a White person you are, the sad truth is most White people don’t have POC friends. And when 70% of White people get jobs through inside connections and referrals from other Whites, you don’t have to be “against POC” to naturally lean on your personal trust networks to make hiring decisions. When done without awareness, those in power will only think to hire POC professionals when it’s about race and diversity, while all other “non-racial” projects seem automatically better suited for your White colleagues…”
Hint: Think about Mennonite Education as well as initiatives for inclusion and diversity within the larger Mennonite Community and look at the racial demographics. Notice any disparities?
Most POC experience culture – their own and the dominant White culture – acutely, because we’re forced to deal with/respond to/defend who we are, and why “we” collectively show up and act the way we do…In contrast, most White colleagues perceive themselves as culture-less, attributing culture and a prescribed set of behaviors only to POC. This leads to cluelessness that an organization’s culture may be set up to maintain the status quo (i.e., White) and black POC from rising in leadership. Case in point: the indirect, non-transparent, downright passive-aggressive culture that is found in many nonprofits.
I believe that it is important and imperative to recognize that maintaining Churches that promote White dominance also has immediate and damaging results. As I think about the Church I attend and the interconnections between whiteness and power and spirituality/theological understanding, I can’t help but notice the disturbing and distressing ways in which my own church has maintained the status quo by way of leadership, power, gentrification and economic, racial and education segregation.
“…Aside from the fact these mostly non-POC institutions are engaging in “trickle-down community engagement,” the POC leaders they recruit are rarely tapped to serve as members of that institution’s Board of Directors or Trustees. This is tokenizing because the Board members of these institutions – often unified not only by race but even more so by class – want to “learn” but from a safe distance while retaining their authority and avoiding the discomfort of having anyone on the inside challenge their privileged worldview…”
“…this type of tokenizing takes many forms, including when those in power:
The reality is that the tokenized POC has no more power than before, with the racial hierarchy remaining the same and leaving issues of race… at our level, for POC to mentally fight it out amongst ourselves.”
As I think about the implications for what this means in Church settings, I can’t help but begin to see that ubiquitous blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus. Part of my own unique journey as a POC but also as a trans-racial adoptee, is that my worldview “lenses” are often filtered through two different types of understandings. On one hand, I grew up in a white family. While many POC experience life in PWI’s, I have lived with white people all the time. (*Can you put that on a job resume? Expert on white people? * Okay. Bad joke…too soon?)
This has afforded me the unique position and opportunity to begin to notice how certain phrases sound to white people and how white people will react. As a person whom is consistently white adjacent, learning how to adapt, “be cool,” and to “let things go,” was arguably a survival mechanism. However, this has also cemented my role as a tokenized body. I have learned to code-switch with ease, but I am often also granted positions which will utilize my skin color as a diversity prop but will also utilize my own ability to “understand” white people. You know, I have been taught to “understand” that when that white person grabs my hair, she isn’t really racist…she is just curious. Or that when that relative says that one story about greasy black people, they aren’t really talking about me…That kind of “understanding.” The kind that receives no reaction. The kind that doesn’t hear the word “illegals,” the one that ignores the “what about the black-on-black violence” the one that doesn’t hear the “well, he wouldn’t have gotten shot if he had just followed what the police wanted…” That type of understanding.
This “double consciousness” and these dichotomies take inherent and immediate physical, spiritual and emotional tolls on my body, and I often need to find space for self-care throughout the day. Partly, because I have found that I can no longer “roll over” or “be cool” or “let it go” when I hear that type of shit.
For me, the past 5 years have been a journey into “wokeness.” I had to wake up. And, this move to intentional wokeness has cost me “friends” and family and community and job opportunities. But, I am committed to the process. Jesus is committed to the process. In fact, He calls us to do this work! And, I am committed to using my voice in my Mennonite circles in order to speak up for racial and social justice.
I believe that the implications for this particular section must be intentionally examined. Right now, no one (at least to my knowledge) has said anything like (#mennonitessowhite), but I wonder what would happen if we did? How would that change the conversations? I believe that when we continue to hold certain demographics in power without challenging the status quo, we inherently illustrate whom we believe matters. Now, I know that for many Mennonite Churches, women in leadership is still a thing. But, I believe that it is critical for us to unpack and dismantle the ways in which we hold onto tradition simply because they are tradition. Jesus calls us to speak Truth and to live Truth. I am a firm believer that not only are women called to speak Truth and to live Truth, but so are black, brown, yellow, gold, pink and purple persons as well. Jesus has empowered us to live together and to live together in such a way that glorifies God. And, we can commit to that call and trust that Jesus will be with us as we go.
“Of course, individual donors and foundations have the right to focus their giving on whatever cause they choose. But if you choose to invest your dollars in White-led nonprofits centered on non-White group or groups (refugee services, “inner city” youth, overseas humanitarian aid, immigrant and civil right, affordable housing, low-income minority workers, etc), then you are doing the opposite of empowering POC…”
“This last reason goes to the heart of how even well-intentioned, White nonprofit leaders may inadvertently tokenize POC. I have had the benefit of working with many amazing White nonprofit workers and philanthropists over the years, all of who get the importance of recruiting, hiring and supporting more POC in nonprofit leadership. Many of these folks have read Ta-Nehisi Coates, can quote MLK Jr., believe that mass deportation is a human rights violation and that Black Lives Matter. They have been to trainings on racism and proudly voted for Obama. But that’s the problem. The focus when thinking of race has been on us, the Other, vs. you and your own community. And yes, even if you don’t wear white sheets on your head or carry tiki torches in Virginia, that is part of White American culture that all Whites need to grapple with as a community, rather than immediately washing your hands clean of it and joining a local BLM or Women’s march…”
Again, I would love to hear your thoughts/comments.